Skip to main content

Mexico's GM Corn Ban Is about More Than Biotech

Global Food for Thought by Kailey Griffith
AP Photos
Central Illinois farmers deposit harvested corn on the ground outside a full grain elevator in Virginia, Ill.

Mexico's threat to ban GM corn presents an opportunity to re-evaluate agricultural norms in the United States and address inequities in trade.

In late 2020, Mexico announced its intention to ban genetically modified corn, prompting the United States to threaten a challenge under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).1 Thus began a stalemate between the two countries that has lasted throughout the Biden administration. The Mexican government backs its decree with the claim that genetically modified (GM) corn poses health risks for Mexican consumers, whereas the United States insists that Mexico has no basis for such claims, and that banning corn imports will cause considerable economic losses while stifling advancements towards food security and climate goals. 

Currently, the two governments are undergoing technical consultations. If a resolution is not reached, then the US government will likely issue a formal dispute under USMCA that will force the matter to be resolved by a third-party panel. As of this writing, Mexico has not succeeded in convincing US officials that GM corn poses a risk to consumers.2 Lawmakers are growing impatient, and many are pushing for the federal government to move forward with the dispute process, claiming any delays could harm US farmers.3  

Precaution or Something More?  

Bans and restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are largely based on the precautionary principle—the notion that a product’s safety must be proven before it is allowed to enter the market. The European Union is known for using precaution as a basis for its restrictions against GMOs and other biotech, and it seems that Mexico is following suit, at least when it comes to white corn used in food products such as tortillas. Facing backlash, the Mexican government offered to compromise by exempting yellow corn used for livestock feed, which the Biden administration rejected outright.4  

Scientists have emphasized that the benefits of GMOs outweigh any risks, despite challenges with consumer acceptance. Genetic modification has the potential to produce crop varieties that generate more food, have better nutritional content, and require less land, water, and pesticides to grow. This could be a much-needed solution to the challenges that population pressures and climate change pose for food security.5   

However, while fears over the safety of GMOs are a real—and problematic—motivator for Mexico’s move, it is by no means the only one. Corn has been a source of contention between the United States and Mexico since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, replaced with the USMCA in 2020. The source of this contention: US agricultural subsidies, and their devastating impacts on Mexico’s domestic corn industry. 

Not-So-Free Trade  

The United States is Mexico’s largest corn supplier, exporting around 16 million metric tons of corn a year.6 This is in part due to the sheer quantity of production—the United States produces around 367.1 million metric tons a year compared to Mexico’s 27 million.7 However, the main reason US corn dominates the market is because the federal government heavily subsidizes corn production, to the point where American corn can be sold at prices well below the cost of production.8 Mexico has no such policies. In fact, the Mexican government eliminated nearly all price support for its agricultural sector as a part of NAFTA.9 As a result, US corn flooded the market, causing corn prices to plummet by as much as 66 percent.10 This drop forced many Mexican producers out of business. 

The United States is not alone in its use of subsidies, as other high-income countries have artificially deflated the prices of various crops for decades. The result is a global market flooded with cheap, ultra-processed food commodities that farmers in low- and middle-income countries struggle to compete with, driving up unemployment and poverty in the agricultural sector.  

This is especially problematic given that Indigenous communities have been hit particularly hard by these price shocks, and with the loss of their farms come the loss of vital resources and knowledge. Mexican Indigenous farmers not only employ traditional methods that promote soil and water conservation, but use and protect diverse arrays of seeds bred to suit local conditions.11 The biodiversity in Mexico’s corn sector is a vital resource for preserving the world’s food supply in the wake of climate change. Losing it would leave the global food supply vulnerable to diseases and natural disasters.  

The Double-Edged Push for Food Sovereignty 

Mexico’s most recent response seems to be somewhat wrongfully pointing the blame at GMOs, taking advantage of widespread culture skepticism of biotech. However, it has given many signals that the main objective is to increase Mexican food sovereignty by reducing the threat of US competition. The Lopez Obrador administration announced a 50 percent tariff on exports of Mexican white corn, and Mexico’s Agricultural Department announced that they intend to cut dependency on feed corn imports by 30 to 40 percent by 2024.12  

Mexico is certainly sabotaging itself here. Efforts to attain food security by implementing trade restrictions rarely succeed, and often make matters worse for all countries involved.13 14 Even so, it does speak to the growing pressure from the Mexican public to act on the economic crises relating to US-Mexican trade.  

Banning GMOs is not the solution, nor are trade restrictions in general, but even though Lopez Obrador’s moves appear to be reckless and ineffective, that does negate the harm that US policies have caused. As brazen as Mexico’s actions are, putting pressure on the United States in the form of drastic threats could be the only way to balance the scales of US-Mexican trade relations, whereas they have historically been tipped heavily in favor of the United States—and there is potential for Mexico to win. Whether or not Mexico’s ban constitutes a USMCA violation is a completely different question from whether GMOs are safe. Many third-party organizations such as the Council of Canadians15 and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy have come to Mexico’s defense, claiming that the United States has no grounds to issue a dispute.16   

The looming threat of Mexico’s ban should not be ignored. If trade restrictions were to go in effect before an agreement is struck, the potential harm to US farmers and industry could echo the disastrous effects of the Trump administration’s trade war with China. Regardless, US officials would do well to consider that there is some legitimacy to Mexico’s stance, even if the rationale behind it is not well supported. 

  • 1Garrison, Cassandra. “Explainer: What Is the US-Mexico GM Corn Dispute about?” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, March 8, 2023.,the%20U.S.%20Department%20of%20Agriculture.
  • 2Tomson, Bill. “Mexico Makes Its Case against GM White Corn.” AgriPulse Communications Inc RSS. Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., April 5, 2023.
  • 3Tomson, Bill. “Lawmakers Want Action on Mexico's Anti-GM Corn.” AgriPulse Communications Inc RSS. Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., March 24, 2023.
  • 4“Statement by USTR and USDA Officials Regarding Meetings in Mexico City.” Office of the United States Trade Representative , January 23, 2023. Executive Office of the President.
  • 5Teferra, Tadesse Fikre. “Should We Still Worry about the Safety of GMO Foods? Why and Why Not? A Review.” Wiley Online Library, July 27, 2012.
  • 6“U.S. Trade with Mexico in 2022.” USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. Accessed April 5, 2023.
  • 7Zahniser, Steven, Nicolas Fernando Lopez Lopez, Mesbah Motamed, Zully Yazmin Silva Vargas, and Tom Capehart. “The Growing Corn Economies of Mexico and the United States.” A Report from the Economic Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture, September 17, 2019.
  • 8Fanjul, Gonzalo, and Arabella Fraser. “Dumping without Borders: How Us Agricultural Policies Are Destroying the Livelihoods of Mexican Corn Farmers.” Oxfam Policy & Practice. Oxfam International, January 8, 2003.
  • 9Gonzalez, Carmen G. “An Environmental Justice Critique of Comparative Advantage: Indigenous Peoples, Trade Policy, and the Mexican Neoliberal Economic Reforms.” Seattle University School of Law Digital Commons, 2011.
  • 10Wise, Timothy A. “Mexico: The Cost of U.S. Dumping.” NACLA Report on the Americas, 2011.
  • 11Mega, Emiliano Rodríguez. “Small Farmers in Mexico Keep Corn's Genetic Diversity Alive.” Scientific American. Scientific American, November 19, 2018.
  • 12Tomson, Bill. “US, Mexico Stalemate on GM Corn Leaves next Step to López Obrador.” AgriPulse Communications Inc RSS. Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., February 1, 2023.
  • 13Anderson, Kym. Agricultural Trade, Policy Reforms, and Global Food Security. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.
  • 14Wahl, Peter. “Food Speculation the Main Factor of the Price Bubble in 2008.” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, January 31, 2009.
  • 15“Media Release: Mexico's Science-Based Decisions to Phase Out GMO Corn and Glyphosate Put Canada's Flawed Stance to Shame.” The Council of Canadians, April 12, 2023. Council of Canadians.
  • 16Wise, Timothy, and Sharon Anglin Treat. “No Basis for U.S. to Dispute Mexico's GM Corn Import Ban.” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, December 16, 2022.
About the Author
Kailey Griffith
Former Research Assistant
Kailey Griffith is pictured in a maroon shirt and is smiling looking into the camera outside at Millennium Park
Kailey Griffith joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2023 and was formerly a research assistant for the Center on Global Food and Agriculture.
Kailey Griffith is pictured in a maroon shirt and is smiling looking into the camera outside at Millennium Park